June 20, 2005

Even more etymological arguments

It amazes me that people find arguments from etymology (of the type Mark has recently discussed) so compelling. As Mark notes, it hardly matters whether the etymologies are correct or bogus; the point is that they are not legitimate arguments for the kinds of things that some people seem to use them for.

So what are etymological arguments good for? Aren't they at least useful as answers to questions about language? Only if the question is specifically about etymology; otherwise, they're still not legitimate. Allow me to illustrate with an example.

A listener recently called in to A Way with Words, a locally-produced public radio show about language hosted by Richard Lederer and Martha Barnette. The listener asked:

My question is about the letter b in words such as plumb and catacomb, the origin or the sou-- why there's no sound.

(Precise quote thanks to KPBS's podcasting feeds.)

Richard and Martha were quick to pull out their dictionaries in order to provide the listener with an answer. (One wonders why the listener couldn't just pull out a dictionary himself, but one wonders this of virtually everyone who calls the show.) And, surprise surprise, according to the etymological portions of the relevant dictionary definitions, the silent b in these and other words used to be pronounced. That was the entire answer to the listener's question, and the listener was apparently very satisfied with it.

But ask yourself: how does this answer the listener's question? Sure, he now knows a little something about the "origin" of the silent b -- it used to really be pronounced. But what about the other part of his question: "why [is there] no sound"? Richard and Martha don't even seem to be aware that this is a separate question with a separate answer, and the listener, having received an answer from these self-proclaimed linguistic authorities, will never know.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at June 20, 2005 01:10 PM